Ed Gillespie, Republican candidate for governor, has gotten himself in a political pickle. According to press reports, he has been blasting his Democratic rival Ralph Northam for backing the 2013 transportation tax package as “the largest tax increase in Virginia history.” But as Democrats have been pointing out, Gillespie was gubernatorial campaign chairman for Bob McDonnell, who pushed the bill through the General Assembly with significant Republican support.
The criticisms don’t address the substance of what Gillespie is saying — Northam did back the biggest tax increase in Virginia history. But the pushback raises an obvious question: What would Gillespie have done differently? How would he have proposed to fund Virginia’s pressing transportation needs?
Frankly, both Republicans and Democrats are incoherent on the subject of transportation funding. Both sides base their arguments on three untenable propositions: (1) that building more roads or commuter rail will solve our transportation problems, if only we build enough of the right thing; (2) that someone else should pay; and (3) that current transportation solutions will be relevant in the rapidly approaching era of driverless cars, transportation as a service and Uberization of transportation.
Let’s address these issues point by point.
Building more roads and commuter rail will not address transportation congestion unless local governments allow developers to transform what we commonly call “suburban sprawl” into traffic-eating walkable urbanism. Pedestrian-friendly, mixed-used development built at moderate densities substitutes foot travel for car trips, substitutes short car trips for longer trips, and makes mass transit a attractive to more riders.
While this market-driven transformation is taking place in fits and starts — mainly in Virginia’s urban-core jurisdictions and around Washington Metro stops — it is not taking place nearly fast enough. There will never be enough money to provide congestion-free transportation for sprawling, low-density land use patterns.
The second problem is that everyone wants a better transportation system, but no one wants to pay for it themselves. Having long ago abandoned the idea of a user-pays system, Virginia politicians excel at singling out others to pay. The result is an absurd system in which there is no connection between those who use transportation infrastructure (roads and rail alike), and those who pay for it. Thus, 85-year-old, blue-haired ladies who drive 2,000 miles a year pay sales taxes to subsidize road warriors who drive 20,000 miles, Dulles Toll Road users pay inflated tolls so Silver Line riders can enjoy below-cost fares, and everyone subsidizes tractor-trailers whose taxes don’t come close to covering the wear and tear they cause on roads. The perverse result: When people don’t pay the full cost of their travel decisions, they travel more.
The third problem, approaching insanity, is that Virginia continues to build roads and rail on the assumption that driving and commuting patterns will be the same in 20 years as they are today. But that is a manifestly idiotic assumption. The advent of driverless cars will drive down the cost of taxi-like, bus-like and jitney-like transportation services, making shared ridership services a more attractive option. The rise of subscription-based transportation-as-a-service enterprises will provide an alternative to individual automobile ownership. There is no way to forecast with any certainty how these innovations will affect driving habits and the need to build more highways and commuter rail.
The debates that politicians should be having, but aren’t, are these:
- How can we relax zoning codes to encourage land use patterns that put less strain on the transportation system?
- How can we reform transportation funding to support a user-pays transportation system?
- How should Virginia position itself to take maximum advantage of the fast-approaching driverless/electric/transportation-as-a-service revolution?
None of these conversations are occurring. Ed Gillespie isn’t talking about them — but neither are his critics. The debate is more sterile than a mule with a vasectomy. Virginians should demand better.